These days anyone with an iPhone and a laptop can make a movie, but how many filmmakers can claim to have created a phenomenon? It’s happened twice in the found footage subgenre; firstly in 1999, with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s peerless no-budget chiller THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and eight years later with Oren Peli’s spiritual follow-up, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. These are films that have had a profound impact not only on horror cinema, but on cinema itself, and their fingerprints can be found all over director Justin Cole’s scary found footage exposé THE UPPER FOOTAGE. While the extent of the influence Cole’s film will ultimately bring to bear remains to be seen, there’s no denying that it already represents a genuine postmodern pop culture phenomenon. A full account of the film’s turbulent history, written by Cole, is available online (I encourage you to seek it out, it’s fascinating), but it boils down to a desire by the filmmaker to perpetrate a convincing and self-perpetuating media hoax capable of transforming a found footage thriller into a real-life snuff movie sensation involving Hollywood celebrities. It’s a fascinating conceit, and speaks to not only our fame-obsessed culture, but to the role both social and ‘legitimate’ media play in constructing our everyday reality. Cole’s venture was a rousing success, and what started as an unsubstantiated rumour soon became urban legend, then established ‘fact,’ reported on by the likes of Entertainment Tonight. Cole was so successful, in fact, that he found himself the target of campaigners outraged (not unreasonably) at the notion of a young woman’s death being exploited for commercial and artistic purposes, and a long and clandestine struggle against the powerful parents of one of the actresses in the film, who took umbrage at the content. The fact and fiction surrounding THE UPPER FOOTAGE have become so blurred that it’s difficult to know what to take at face value, but it certainly appears that some kind of conspiracy is dedicated to hampering the film’s prospects. So there you have it – a textbook example of how to make a movie that stands out from the crowd, one that so thoroughly transcends its own limited trappings that the actual film is almost irrelevant, it’s the media ripples that count. But when you strip away the hype and subterfuge, the conspiracy theories and Chinese whispers, what’s THE UPPER FOOTAGE actually like?
Just as Cole has found himself a victim of his project’s runaway success, so does his film. While most genre offerings are at least moderately predictable, dealing in familiar tropes and well-worn clichés, they also pride themselves on their twists and turns, the story elements we didn’t see coming. THE UPPER FOOTAGE isn’t like most films. There’s barely a story to speak of, and, given the extensive media coverage it’s received, you probably already know exactly what’s going to happen. As such, it’s hard to recommend THE UPPER FOOTAGE to anyone whose priority is an action-packed rollercoaster ride, or who’s looking for a casual afternoon’s viewing. But for anyone who takes their cinema seriously, or has an interest in either the film’s history or the wider relationship between the media and ‘real life,’ it’s a different story.
Here at LaptopZombie we’ve long campaigned against the preponderance of unlikeable cretins in horror films (for convenience of categorisation we’re calling THE UPPER FOOTAGE horror, although convincing claims could be made for a variety of genres). I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie populated by such irredeemable monsters as those in THE UPPER FOOTAGE. Again, however, the film is an exception; the fact that its characters are soulless, amoral abominations is very much the point. It’s as damning an indictment of directionless, hedonistic, moneyed youth as you could possibly hope to see, a drug-fuelled collision of the best of Bret Easton Ellis with the worst of MY SUPER SWEET 16. Cruel, sneering and without a single saving grace, these are horror movie villains of the scariest kind – those that actually exist. Cole holds up a mirror to Hollywood society, and what it reflects is sickening.
As a rule, found footage fails to convince. Cole is as meticulous about his filmmaking as he is about creating a believable backstory, resulting in a finished product that’s entirely persuasive. He avoids all the usual pitfalls – a reliance on rigid scripting, use of incidental music, too-good-to-be-true framing, multiple cameras, ostentatious editing – and even manages to circumvent the thorny question of why they continue to shoot after the shit has hit the fan. The dialogue is largely, maybe entirely, improvised, and the long takes and awkward angles cement the sense of verisimilitude. It’s easy to see why so many industry professionals were fooled – THE UPPER FOOTAGE really does look like the real deal.
In the end, of course, it’s impossible to strip away the hype and subterfuge, the conspiracy theories and Chinese whispers. Gone are the days when movies were just movies – now they’re multimedia franchises, websites, twitter accounts, t-shirts and actions figures, fan fiction. No-budget horror films from unknown directors can’t lay claim to such grandiose marketing strategies, but, as Cole has proved, with a bloody good idea, an insider’s understanding of entertainment media, and balls the size of Godzilla’s, even the most modest of found footage productions can be elevated to near-mythical status. It’s impossible to divorce THE UPPER FOOTAGE from the furore surrounding it, nor should we try. It adds an extra dimension to the experience, a spice you just don’t get from watching a common-or-garden horror movie. Slow, meticulous and grotesquely authentic, THE UPPER FOOTAGE is a glimpse into a morally vacuous world of excess and casual barbarism, a world where no one thinks of anyone but themselves, and celebrity is a licence to get away with murder. It’s not an easy film to watch, and it was even harder for Cole to make, but nothing worthwhile is ever simple. Cole claims to have already planted the seeds of his next project, one he describes as ‘a bit riskier.’ The mind boggles...